Note: This is a great article to read with your Challenge-aged students to start the conversation about academic honesty over the summer while there are no looming deadlines. You may want to consider printing the sidebar and posting it near your student’s workspace.
“What do you mean, an ‘F’?” The suit-clad student stared open-mouthed across the boardroom table at me. “I’m a senior. I can’t fail this class.”
Even though I was sitting with the other members of the honor council, I felt as though his plea was for me and me alone. The proof was right in front of us: printed articles with colorful highlighters demonstrating the passages that matched his essay word-for-word. It was clearly plagiarism. At our college, that meant failure of the assignment, if not the class. Recognizing the justice of the situation did not diminish my sense of empathy for the student’s shaking voice and sweaty palms.
When I finished my term on the honor council, I wanted to give students tools to help them avoid that devastating experience. Each individual student has the responsibility to avoid plagiarism, but I wanted them to know that they also have the ability to avoid plagiarism by practicing academic integrity from an early age.
What is plagiarism? According to the Harvard College Writing Program, “In academic writing, it is considered plagiarism to draw any idea or any language from someone else without adequately crediting that source in your paper.”[i] The Southeastern University student handbook states, “Plagiarism occurs when a writer uses someone else’s language, ideas, or other original material without acknowledging its source.”[ii] Put simply, plagiarism means misrepresenting someone else’s words or ideas as your own.
There are two kinds of plagiarism—intentional and unintentional. The first is to deliberately steal the words of someone else and pass them off as your own. The second is failing to properly cite your sources. The most egregious examples include copying and pasting from a website or submitting a paper produced in its entirety by an online essay generator. It is easy to see the breach of integrity in these examples because the individual was consciously copying someone else’s work as a shortcut around personal effort. Less obvious, but more common, are the instances in which a student makes a genuine effort to incorporate someone else’s ideas into his or her writing but, through ignorance or carelessness, fails to give proper credit. In those cases, many students express a sense of injustice: “I didn’t know I was committing plagiarism! How can you hold me accountable for something I don’t know?”
Imagine that you want to become a licensed driver. For your own safety and the safety of those around you, you commit to certain laws. In order to obtain a license, you study those laws to pass a test. Afterward, you are responsible for retaining and applying your knowledge whenever you drive. If driving laws change, you may not have to take another test, but you will still be expected to learn and abide by the new law. “I didn’t know!” is not an excuse. You may not agree with those laws and may certainly argue or work to change them, but if you break them, you must be willing to accept the consequences.
As with driving, when you participate in an academic community, you are agreeing to abide by certain principles designed to reward creativity and encourage diligent work. In a college classroom, those principles are typically expressed in a plagiarism policy or the university’s honor code. It is up to you to read and apply those principles to your work. “I didn’t know!” is not an excuse. The good news is, there are people ready and willing to help you find answers. Your years at home as a student are the best possible time to practice academic integrity. Chances are, the student-teacher ratio will never be smaller!
Classically educated students may be tempted to retort that ancient writers borrowed freely from their sources, often verbatim. Shakespeare did it. Why shouldn’t you? That’s a fair question. To answer it, let’s take a step back to talk about the broader issue of academic integrity. Why do citations and bibliographies matter? I’ll offer three reasons, each bound up in your ethos as a student-leader.
First, in the five common topics of invention, you have learned the importance of authority or testimony as a means of discovering truth. Who are the relevant authorities, and what do they say about your topic? By using citations properly, you identify your authorities for the person assessing your work, demonstrating that you have engaged deeply with your topic. This demonstrates ethos, and establishes you as a credible (and thus persuasive) speaker.
Second, you are on your way to becoming a scholar in your own right, whether your field is business, politics, academics, statesmanship, or engineering. Because you have practiced the five canons of rhetoric, you will have ideas that are worth sharing. Academic integrity celebrates the original ideas of others—giving credit where credit is due—and ensures that when you present your original ideas in synthesis of what you’ve read, those ideas will shine out, clearly distinguishable.
Third, and perhaps most importantly, academic integrity is an act of kindness to your fellow learners. Your intellectual journey has been shaped and guided by what you have read. In all likelihood, someone or something pointed you toward those authors. Perhaps it was a bibliography or a footnote. Properly cited, your essays and research can give the same leg up to a student who comes after you.
We’ve talked about what plagiarism is and why it matters, but the big question for many students (and parents) is how: how do I avoid plagiarism? I want to uphold my academic integrity, but what happens if I run out of time to complete an assignment or simply don’t understand the topic well enough to paraphrase? Check out the sidebar of this article for practical tips to use at home, but I want to close by speaking to one of the most common underlying reasons for plagiarism: fear. When your mind says, “There is no way I can write an essay about Milton. I don’t even know what this sentence means,” fear is talking. When you buy an essay online rather than tell your parents you ran out of time to write it, fear is at work. Don’t let fear kidnap you (the Latin verb plagiare) and hold your academic integrity for ransom.
Your family and community want you to succeed. They want to help you overcome challenges and grow. Speaking up and asking for help is one of the surest antidotes for fear.
[i] “What Constitutes Plagiarism?” Harvard Guide to Using Sources. Updated 2016. https://usingsources.fas.harvard.edu/what-constitutes-plagiarism
[ii] Southeastern University Fire: 2012-2013 Student Handbook. http://myseu.seu.edu/docs/2011_2012_student_handbook.pdf. Derived from the Council of Writing Program Administrators, “Defining and Avoiding Plagiarism: The WPA Statement on Best Practices” (2003).
“Annotated Bibliographies.” The Writing Center at UNC-Chapel Hill. Updated 2014. http://writingcenter.unc.edu/handouts/annotated-bibliographies
The Chicago Manual of Style (16th ed.). Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010.
“Chicago-Style Citation Quick Guide.” The Chicago Manual of Style. Updated 2010. http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/tools_citationguide.html
“Citing Information.” UNC University Libraries. http://guides.lib.unc.edu/citing-information
Cooper, Harris. “Principles of Good Writing: Avoiding Plagiarism.” May 12, 2016. APA Style Blog. http://blog.apastyle.org/apastyle/2016/05/avoiding-plagiarism.html
Harvard Guide to Using Sources. Updated 2016. https://usingsources.fas.harvard.edu/avoiding-plagiarism
“How We Cite.” The Writing Center at UNC-Chapel Hill. Updated 2014. http://writingcenter.unc.edu/handouts/how-we-cite/
MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers (8th ed.). New York: The Modern Language Association of America, 2016.
The MLA Style Center. https://style.mla.org/
“Plagiarism.” The Writing Center at UNC-Chapel Hill. Updated 2014. http://writingcenter.unc.edu/handouts/plagiarism/
Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (6th ed.) Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 2009.
“Research and Citation Resources.” Purdue Online Writing Lab. Updated 2016. https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl
“Why We Cite.” The Writing Center at UNC-Chapel Hill. Updated 2014. http://writingcenter.unc.edu/handouts/why-we-cite/